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Great Wolf Lodge delivers water park fun with 0% chance of weather

The first thing I noticed when I walked into the indoor water park at the new Great Wolf Lodge near Disneyland was the temperature: a constant 84 degrees Fahrenheit.

No fear of sunburn or need for sunscreen. No use for a towel either — because the water was also a constant 84 degrees Fahrenheit. And I’d never get a chill — unless I stepped outside into the late-winter air where there was a small water play area for visitors from colder climes who thought 72 degrees was a hot summer day.

Over the weekend, I spent the day at the Great Wolf Lodge indoor water park as the new Garden Grove hotel located about a mile from Disneyland celebrated its grand opening.

Upon arrival, I had one central question: Why here? Great Wolf operates water park hotels across North America, mostly in the frost belt. I can understand why someone in Michigan or Kansas might want to slip away to a man-made tropical paradise for a weekend, but why would Great Wolf ever build a water park hotel in sunny Southern California?

The answer became clear as soon as I stood inside the indoor water park’s climate controlled perfection.

While Southern California is blessed with wonderful year-round temperatures, even we would never go to an outdoor water park in early March. Or at 9 a.m. or 9 p.m. But the sun never sets at the Great Wolf Lodge. There are no heat waves, thunderstorms, windy days or cloudy skies under the massive pitched roof. No matter how uncooperative Mother Nature is acting outside, the weather is always perfect indoors.

I expected the 2 1/2-acre indoor water park to be cramped and crowded with a snake’s nest of water slides in the space of about two football fields. It was just the opposite. The expansive and comfortable layout pushed all the water activities to the four corners of the 75-foot-tall hangar-like structure while leaving plenty of room in the middle of the soaring space for lounging and circulation.

The other revelation was the relatively short lines for the water slides and attractions. Because Great Wolf limits access to hotel guests, the water park never felt crowded.

I headed first for the six-story tower bristling with 10 water slides, several of which punched through the walls of the building and dramatically jutted outside along Harbor Boulevard. The four-lane mat racer sent riders down separate tunnels before emerging side-by-side for the splashdown finish. Daylight shone through the tube slides and family raft ride as the tunnels briefly exited and reentered the building. The spiral flume spun my inner tube around before plunging me backward down the toilet bowl finale.

I was most excited to try the Wolf Tail slide that starts with a pulse-quickening trapdoor floor release before descending into a 360-degree flat loop. Watching one rider after another in the glass-coffin-like launch capsule suddenly disappear before my eyes gave me second thoughts. Stepping inside the capsule with the heartbeat audio and countdown announcement increased my excitement level. But ultimately the anticipation far exceeded the experience that lasted less than 10 seconds and couldn’t live up to the buildup.

My favorite slide on the tower was the Howlin’ Tornado funnel, Great Wolf Lodge’s signature attraction that hovers along Harbor Boulevard like a beacon for fun seekers. The near-vertical plunge into the funnel was as shocking as it was thrilling — especially when descending backward on the hurtling inner tube. Judging by the lines for Howlin’ Tornado, it was the water park’s most popular ride.

The tower was divided into two levels, with seven slides at the four-story level and three at the six-story level. But there was only a single line for each level, leading to lots of confusion and wasted time waiting behind people while slides went unused. The delays mattered little though, as I never waited more than 10 minutes for any of the slides. The hotel was at about 60% capacity during my visit, so the waits might be a bit longer on a busier day. But overall, I found the crowds to be well spaced out and the wait times to be short.

Next up was Crooked Creek lazy river, which was short by outdoor water park standards. But really how long do you need a lazy river to be? You can just go around several times until you’ve had your fill. I was surprised the lazy river only had about 20 inner tubes, a calculated decision clearly intended to cut down on traffic jams on the relatively short watercourse. I went around the lazy river the first time without an inner tube, floating swiftly and effortlessly on my back, which was surprisingly fun. On my next trip around, I found a raft and floated lazily around the meandering circuit two more times before I was done.

The Slap Tail Pond wave pool was probably the biggest disappointment of the day. The wave pool was naturally smaller than the ones found at outdoor water parks, but the real problem was the water level only came up to my waist in the deepest end. The water park was clearly built for a pre-teen crowd. The hotel was filled almost exclusively by families with kids in the 4- to 12-year-old range. A nearby kiddie area catered to the youngest kids with miniature slides and a shallow splash zone pool.

I had been looking forward to the Wolf Rider Wipeout, which would be first chance to try a surf simulator with ocean-like waves. Wipeout had by far the longest line of the day, mostly because only one person could ride at a time. I spent the 20 minutes in line watching what looked like an exciting boogie boarding experience. A few of the more daring dads and teenage boys tried surfing on what looked like a skateboard-sized surfboard. A constant flow of rushing water formed a thin layer for the riders to skim along. It certainly looked thrilling from the sidelines, but I found the actual experience to be about as interesting as standing on a moving walkway at the airport. The ride amounted to little more than laying on a boogie board as water rushed beneath me.

The last corner of the water park was filled with an activity pool. A quartet of basketball hoops just out of dunking range offered an endless supply of tremendous fun. Twenty squishy, bouncy basketballs that wouldn’t hurt you if they hit you in the head were constantly soaring through the air from three-point range. Nearby, a pair of lily pad courses arranged beneath cargo nets proved to be surprisingly simple for agile 6-year-olds and frustratingly impossible for middle-aged adults like myself. I repeatedly crashed into the water in utter disbelief and embarrassment.

My last stop of the day was at the marquee Fort Mackenzie water play tower with its massive tipping bucket in the middle of the water park. A countdown every four minutes brought kids running for the gushing 100-gallon splashdown. Suspension bridges and cargo nets lead to four disappointing body slides that provided little zip or excitement. I spent most of my time firing a water cannon with a stunning 50-foot-range at unsuspecting parents and kids down below.

In the works since 2010 when the project was first announced, the oft-delayed $300-million woodsy-themed Great Wolf Lodge is California’s first indoor water park and the largest property in the hotel chain. The Garden Grove hotel’s 600 suites, which run from $250 to $600 per night depending on the season, have a cozy log cabin design with wilderness and outdoor themes. The place is like a kid's casino - with several floors filled with video arcades, miniature golf, live-action adventure games, thrill rides, pint-sized bowling, kiddie manicures, scavenger hunts, bedtime stories and, of course, a 105,000-square-foot water park.

Great Wolf operates 12 other water park hotels in colder North American climates that promote the year-round destinations as “weatherproof fun.” The Wisconsin-based chain has built several hotels near theme parks and water parks, including locations near Cedar Point and Kings Island in Ohio, Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia and Schlitterbahn Kansas City. The first Great Wolf Lodge opened in 1997 in Wisconsin Dells, a tiny Wisconsin town with 18 water parks that rightly proclaims itself the “water park capital of the world.”

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